As a feat of pure visual craftsmanship, “Elemental” is anything but simple, often delighting the eyes with inventive character designs and trailblazing animation techniques. For that alone, the Pixar-produced, Peter Sohn-directed feature made a fitting cap for this year’s Cannes Film Festival, closing the prestigious event with an incident rich and formally vibrant showcase for studio animation might.
Though as return to form for Pixar itself – a rekindling of that fire that set hearts ablaze by wedding prodigious technique to (ahem) elementally simple metaphor – the film falls somewhat short of previous highs. By way of pure storytelling magic, the film also unfortunately lives up to its title.
Building on multiple elements from last year’s “Turning Red,” this latest Pixar joint mines family expectations for narrative tension, doing so with a refreshing absence of conventional antagonists. This time, “Elemental” foregrounds the first-generation immigrant experience right from the start, beginning with a short prologue that follows the freshly-arrived Lumen family off the boat and into their new lives in the suburbs of Element City.
Once we catch-up with the now adult Ember (voiced by Leah Lewis), the only-child has become a fixture of her Firetown community and a hair-trigger presence at her family’s all-purpose deli. The corner store is a fun place to hang — the kind of neighborhood hub where alter kakers kvetch over pools of java, where the native-tongue of Firish is spoken more than English, and where the Old Country bears certain hallmarks of East Asia, altogether reflecting the many immigrant communities the Fire elements are meant to represent. But Ember would rather be anywhere else.
She certainly doesn’t hide her impatience, as her red flames turn purple around the edges when annoyance turns to ire and then explode into a violent fireball when ire burns to rage. One furious release accidentally dislodges a basement pipeline, spewing water all over the supply room and sending Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) into her life. As in all proper rom-coms, theirs is an antagonistic relationship at first, as water element Wade just so happens to work as a building inspector and just so happened to gush out into a regulatory disaster zone.
Soon Wade heads back to city hall to process his injunctions and Ember follows in quick pursuit, hoping to do whatever possible to save her family business. And so begins a densely packed if rather episodic narrative that takes the duo from foils to friends to frustrated soul mates, but for their incompatible makeups and family duties.
To say that “Elemental” feels closer in certain aspects to a series of children’s books than to a propulsive narrative is in no way a jab; the episodic film just shares so many of its highest pleasures with mid-century classics from Richard Scarry and Peggy Parish, joyfully anthropomorphizes any odd element and builds visual gags out of puns and plays on words in ways similar to the Busytown series or to “Amelia Bedelia.” The filmmakers really do mine these elements for their full potential, delighting us as Water spectators do the wave in a very literal way at a sports match, or as Ember realizes her glass-making potential upon a trip to the beach. While playful and pun-forward, “Elemental” always takes this world seriously, finding great visual wit in the ways fire, water, land and air interact with one another in a shared metropolis that resembles a coral reef.
The fact that Ember – like most residents of Element City’s Firetown suburb – only view the big city from afar widens the film’s allegorical scope. While we do hear the old “Elements don’t mix” from the flame’s old-timer parents, Ember seems to avoid the downtown for more physical reasons: Many spaces are just not made for her. Though the film dances around interesting questions of accessibility, it mostly does so around the edges. If anything, director Pete Sohn is far more interested in what marvels characters’ bodies can accomplish.
Keeping with the real elements’ unfixed natural states, the fire and water characters have porous physical boundaries; they can shrink and swell and dwindle and spread according to the context. And when met with the advanced rendering tools and animation techniques that makes these often impossible elements now workable onscreen, the wider film becomes rife with visual possibilities, but hampered by a paint-by-number narrative replete with chase-scenes at every 15-minute mark and a third-act recycled from just about 15 other films.
With story beats and character turns that strain well beyond familiarity, “Elemental” matches formal adventure with storytelling timidity. Here is a new spin on the old formula, livened up by advances in technology and delivered with real artistry. The film is full of complex and volatile parts, all held together in the most elemental of containers.